Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kay Ryan, Poet

Ryan, a lifelong Californian and graduate of UCLA, was recently named our 16th Poet Laureate. [Ryan, on right, with Emily Warn at a poetry conference. Photo: Star Black,Flickr]

It was only after this announcement that I became familiar with her writing. What I discovered was someone who is unafraid of the most commonplace as the basis for wonder. A friend e-mailed me "Home to Roost," which begins:

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way....

These charming first lines, with the almost childlike rhyme of day/way soon unfurls to offer a metaphorical commentary open to various interpretations. See the entirety of "Home to Roost" and several other of her poems at this PBS poetry page.

Ryan lives in Marin County, where she is also a mountain biker, so you could perhaps have a sudden encounter with her on Mount Tam. She admits to preferring a hermetic life, and is now forced to deal with publicity and perhaps more appearances than she would prefer.

Ryan has been published in many literary journals and magazines. Her collections of poetry are: Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. Fairfax, CA: Taylor Street Press, 1983.
Strangely Marked Metal
. Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1985.

Flamingo Watching
. Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1994.
lephant Rocks, New York: Grove Press, 1997.
Say Uncle
. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Niagara River
. New York: Grove Press,

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Caroline Seymour Severance, 1820-1914

At age 91, Caroline Seymour Severance deserved the honor of becoming the first woman in California to register to vote in Los Angeles following the passage of state suffrage in 1911. She was instrumental on several fronts in facilitating the suffrage movement both nationally and in her adopted state. Similar to many women of wealth during her time, she focused her philanthropy on the needs of women and children.

Raised in New York, Severance was a school teacher until her marriage to banker Theordore Severance in 1840. They lived in Ohio and Boston, where she became instrumental in founding a variety of organizations. Some consider her the "Mother of the Woman's Clubs" because of her role in creating and fostering such organizations. She was very active in Woman's Rights conventions. She headed the committee that founded the first regional suffrage association, the New England Woman's Suffrage Association, which formed in response to the failure of the abolitionist cause to achieve equal rights for women. In 1866 she helped Susan B. Anthony found the Equal Rights Association. Several years later she joined Lucy Stone and others in creating the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

When the family moved to Los Angeles in 1875, Severance could have slowed down, but she continued her many activities. Among her contributions were the establishment of several kindergartens, the first Unitarian congregation in LA, and various women's groups. Most important was her developing the Friday Morning Club (pictured as built 938-940 South Figueroa Street) which became the center of social reform activities. Such groups developed boarding hotels for single working women, training programs for better job opportunities, orphanages, hospitals, and schools. [Photo courtesy of Library of Congress]

Although women's clubs initially formed for self-education and social reform, eventually they committed more directly to suffrage. Through these clubs women learned to speak in public, to coordinate activities, to create and manage organizations, and to publicize their works. As a result, they became an important base, already in existence, for securing the vote. Regrettably, no comprehensive biography of this significant leader exists, and she is omitted from textbooks on California history.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

A belated entry for this couple that was most deservedly allowed the first marriage at San Francisco City Hall in June, 2008. When I was growing up back east, I never heard the word lesbian or any reference to it. My mother knew gay men and described her first trip to a gay bar, yet it never occurred to me that women could be gay. (Photo by Mi-ly on Flickr. Thanks!)

Then I went to a woman's college where one year two women were ordered to leave their dorm rooms open 24/7. How was that for making a point? The result was to arouse great sympathy for the beleaguered dorm mates. (It's always interested me that many of the women administrators there were unmarried, and not visibly dating men. How many of them were in the closet?) Of course, this was before the civil rights movement, and women professors got paid and promoted less than their male colleagues, so homosexuality was definitely taboo as a public event.

Martin and Lyon moved to San Francisco in 1953, where they started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first major national organization for lesbians. In 1967, they joined the National Organization of Women and fought to eliminate homophobia from the nascent women's rights movement.

Moving eventually to Northern California in 1970, I had forthright lesbian students and befriended a number of them. They taught me pool, how to dance better, and urged me speak up more as a woman. Martin and Lyon's 1972 book on lesbian women was groundbreaking for these young women, who were so significant as activists in the women's right movement locally. It is difficult to imagine what courage it took on the authors' part to write on this topic. Many of my students had been disowned by their families, but created an extended fictive family in the area that remains to this day. I like to think of these early students also marrying. They taught me much more about life and injustice than I offered them in the classroom.